Teaching Idioms in TEFL

An Idiom is a phrase which has a very different meaning from what it appears to be. It has a figurative meaning which is very different from the literal meaning.

For example, in The Godfather famously Luca Brassi

sleeps with the fishes

This doesn’t literally mean that Brassi sleeps with the fishes, it’s a mob related euphemism meaning that he is dead.

It’s very important for learners of English to know the meaning of common idioms as it’s easy for conversations to go astray when they don’t understand them. While learners can often work out the literal meaning of the language, it’s the idiomatic use of English which can make it difficult:

You look beat. Do you want to go out tonight?
No, I need to hit the books.
You need to let your hair down once in a while.
Yeah, I guess I have been burning the midnight oil a bit.
Game on!

It’s easy to see how a (somewhat contrived!) conversation like this could prove difficult for a non-native speaker to understand.

Idioms and TEFL

When it comes to idioms there are often few or no signposts to their meaning. For example, the following idiomatic phrases have, on the surface, nothing to do with their meaning:

under the weather = unwell
let the cat out of the bag = reveal a secret

This being the case, when idioms turn up in the class you need to teach them as a whole. Unlike proverbs where the meaning can sometimes be worked out, the meaning of an idiom is a lot harder to guess. While you might prompt the class in the right direction, don’t be surprised if they find it impossible to find the meaning from the context or the words of the idiom itself:

Why do you want to get some ink?
I just like the idea.
Or maybe you’re just jumping on the bandwagon?

Without a great command of English it’s almost impossible to guess the meaning of the idioms above.

Some ELT activities suggest going through a text which is simply overloaded with (often related) idioms. This isn’t natural. English native speakers do use idioms but they don’t tend to pile them on top of each other (especially in more formal contexts). Idioms are used when the situation deserves it and not shoehorned into any opportunity so bear this in mind and teach idioms as and when they arise naturally in class.


Don’t forget also to talk about context. Many (although by no means all) idioms are informal and even when a learner knows what an idiom means, it can also be difficult for them to use it correctly in context. An official report would not say, for example:

The prisoner kicked the bucket whilst in police custody.

So you should make sure your students understand that they should only use idioms when they are 100% sure of both the meaning and the contexts where they can be used. In this regard they are like slang or taboo words and need to be handled with care.

Useful Links

Teaching Proverbs in TEFL– unlike idioms, the meaning of proverbs can often be guessed

Taboo Words‏‎ and TEFL – like idioms, their meaning and when you can use them needs to be 100% accurate

Slang‏‎ in English – a look at slang words and phrases

Idioms & Phrases – an online list of idioms

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Posted in How To Teach English.

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